Monday, December 31, 2018

Nativity Afterfeast and the Week (and Year) Ahead

Dear Parish Faithful,

Afterfeast of the Nativity - This is a somewhat complicated period in terms of how it is approached liturgically.

On the one hand, we have the longest fast-free period in the entire liturgical year, from December 25 - January 4 inclusive. This fast-free period is reflective of the joy that surrounds the Nativity of Christ. That means that the entire week ahead of us is fast-free up to and including Friday.

However, January 5 is "strict fast day" in preparation for Theophany on January 6 (a Sunday this year). So, we have the "twelve days of Christmas" from December 25 - January 5, though the last of these days is a fast day because of the subsequent Theophany.

However, because January 1 is eight days after Nativity, we celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on that day. Jesus submits Himself to the Law and is circumcised in the flesh as a male child of Israel; as well as being given his divinely-directed Name of Jesus on the eighth day. Yet, since this feast takes us to the "next step" in the developing life of Christ, we no longer sing the festal Nativity hymns past December 31.

Therefore, though the Christmas season extends up to Theophany, it is no longer the focus of the Church's liturgy/hymnography once we come to the Circumcision. Hence, today is the last day that we sing the Troparion, "Thy Nativity of Christ ..." As I said, a bit complicated...

Here is a link to a good, short summary of the meaning of the Feast of the Circumcision...

On January 1, we also commemorate St. Basil the Great, truly one of the "greatest" of the Church Fathers. Here is a link to a rather lengthy summary of his extraordinary life - all packed into forty-nine years!

How will we, as a parish, celebrate these two feasts on January 1 (together with the civil New Year)? According to the following schedule:

This evening - Great Vespers at 6:00 p.m.
Tuesday - Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great at 9:30 a.m.

I hope to see many of you at one or both of these services. If the civil New Year is a big celebration for you, then begin with God!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Christmas and Martyrdom

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


The Gospel reading for the Great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is Matthew 2:1-12.  This passage proclaims the Good News that the Savior was born in Bethlehem according to the biblical prophecies.

The star guides the Magi and they, in turn, bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Child in acknowledgment that He is unique and a true King, testified to by cosmic signs that even the Gentile Magi can properly interpret.  Joyous as this is, there is already a hint of the ultimate destiny of Christ in that myrrh is used in the burial customs of the Jews.

On the Second Day of the Nativity, we complete the reading of the second chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel—2:13-23, which immediately introduces us to the tragic reality of the massacre of the innocent boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.  The previous joy of the Savior’s Nativity is replaced by the wailing and lamentation of the mothers of these innocent children, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” [Jeremiah 2:18].

The shadow of the Cross lay across the infancy narratives in this Gospel, for in the immediate post-Nativity period, these male children become the first of many martyrs who must die because Christ has entered the world, as many of the powerful of this world—following the dark example of King Herod—will not receive Him; they will actually despise Him and turn against His followers.  Thus, the suffering of innocent children is somehow taken up by God as an offering in a sinful world that fluctuates between light and darkness.  

And we must acknowledge that the suffering of innocent children continues to the present time - a suffering directly caused by human wickedness. We now understand that the cave of the Nativity anticipated the tomb of Christ’s burial, and that the swaddling clothes anticipated the grave clothes with which Christ would eventually be bound following His death on the Cross.

On the Third Day of the Nativity - and on the Sunday After Nativity - we commemorate the Protomartyr Stephen, the first to die for his faith in Christ in the post-Resurrection community of the newborn Church.  St. Stephen's lengthy speech to his fellow Jews, in which he upbraided them for their lack of faith; and in which he proclaimed Jesus as the Risen and Ascended Christ is recorded in ACTS 7.  His brutal martyrdom by stoning followed as his testimony resulted in a furious and deadly rejection of his convicting words. In fact, "they gnashed their teeth against him" (ACTS 7:54).

Martyrdom has always been a distinct and powerful witness to Christ.  Actually, “from the beginning” the Incarnation and Martyrdom are inextricably joined together in a world torn by the tension between darkness and light.  To our great joy, we know "that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (JN. 1:5).  

The kontakion for the Feast of Saint Stephen captures the movement between the joy of Christ’s birth and the sobering reality of what Christ’s coming meant for some:

Yesterday the Master assumed our flesh and became our guest; Today His servant is stoned to death and departs in the flesh: The glorious first martyr Stephen!

There is no greater witness to Christ than that of the martyrs—flesh and blood men, women and children who gave their lives for the Lord in the sure hope and assurance that eternal life awaited them in the Kingdom of God. 

If we exchange a “Merry Christmas” with others, we always need to be mindful of the commitment we are making to the newborn Christ.  As we temporarily indulge in the days of the Feast, we realize that the Christian life is ultimately a commitment to discipline and restraint, even the “crucifixion” of the flesh with all of its desires, in order to “witness” to Christ as disciples who believe that His advent in the flesh, culminating in His death and resurrection, has prepared a place for us in His eternal Kingdom where there is “life everlasting.”

Monday, December 24, 2018

Inexhaustible Spiritual Riches from the Nativity of Christ

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is Christmas Eve and we are in our final preparation for the Feast of the Lord's Nativity. There are a multitude of themes that come readily to mind during this feast of inexhaustible spiritual riches - for the Incarnation opens up our minds and hearts to the inexhaustible mercy and love of God - "Since for our sake the eternal God was born a little child!"

So, I have a few somewhat random passages, each of which touches on a particular theme; and each of which contributes something meaningful to our own understanding and experience of the birth of Christ.

St. Ephraim the Syrian

To begin, here is a portion of St. Ephraim's Hymn I On the Nativity. St. Ephraim was the precursor of St. Romanos the Melode from the Syrian tradition, who wrote a type of poetic theology in a series of beautiful hymns based on his knowledge of the Scriptures. These hymns were usually sung in church but today we at least have the texts which have come down to us. Toward the end of this hymn, St. Ephraim draws out the moral and ethical imperatives that flow from the doctrine of the Incarnation:

Serene is the night in which shines forth the Serene One Who
came to give us serenity.
Do not allow anything that might disturb it to enter upon our
Let the path of the ear be cleared; let the sight of the eye be
let the contemplation of the heart be sanctified; let the speech of the
mouth be purified.

This is the night of reconciliation; let us be neither wrathful nor
gloomy on it.
On this all-peaceful night let us be neither menacing nor boisterous.
This is the night of the Sweet One; let us be on it neither bitter nor
On this night of the Humble One, let us be neither proud nor
On this day of forgiveness let us not avenge offenses.
On this day of rejoicings let us not share sorrows.
On this sweet day let us not be vehement.
On this calm day let us not be quick-tempered
On this day on which God came into the presence of sinners,
let not the just man exalt himself in his mind over the sinner.
On this day when the Rich One was made poor for our sake,
let the rich man also make the poor man a sharer at his table.
On this day a gift came out to us without our asking for it;
let us then give alms to those who cry out and beg from us.

This Lord of natures today was transformed contrary to His
it is not too difficult for us also to overthrow our evil will.
Bound is the body by its nature for it cannot grow larger or smaller;
but powerful is the will for it may grow to all sizes.
Today the Deity imprinted itself on humanity,
so that humanity might also be cut into the seal of Deity.

Ephraim the Syrian Hymns, p. 73-74.

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom implores us not to "pry" into the mystery of the virginal conception of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary. To do so is to try and analyze or rationalize a mystery both unanalyzable and trans-rational:

Do not speculate beyond the text. Do not require of it something more than which it simply says. Do not ask, "But precisely how was it that the Spirit accomplished this in a virgin?" For even when nature is at work, it is impossible fully to explain the manner of the formation of the person. How then, when the Spirit is accomplishing miracles, shall we be able to express their causes? ...

Shame on those who attempt to pry into the miracle of generation from on high! For this birth can by no means be explained, yet it has witnesses beyond number and has been proclaimed from ancient times as a real birth handled by human hands. ... For neither Gabriel not Matthew was able to say anything more, but only that the generation was from the Spirit But how from the Spirit? In what manner? Neither Gabriel nor Matthew has explained, nor is it possible.

... So how could the infinite One reside in a womb? How could he that contains all be carried as yet unborn by a woman? How could the Virgin bear and continue to be a Virgin? Explain to me how the Spirit designed the temple of his body.
The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 4.3.

Archbishop Kallistos Ware

When Jesus Christ was born, a new person did not come into existence. But a divine Person was born in the flesh. Archbishop Kallistos Ware explains this great mystery with theological clarity:

When a child is born from two human parents in the usual fashion, a new person begins to exist. But the person of the incarnate Christ is none other than the second person of the Holy Trinity. At Christ's birth, therefore, no new person came into existence, but the pre-existent person of the Son of God now began to live according to a human as well as a divine mode of being. So the Virgin Birth reflects Christ's eternal pre-existence.

Because the person of the incarnate Christ is the same as the person of the Logos, the Virgin Mary may rightly be given the title Theotokos, "God-bearer." She is mother, not of a human son joined to the divine Son, but of a human son who is the only-begotten Son of God. The son of Mary is the same person as the divine Son of God; and so, by virtue of the Incarnation, Mary is in truth "Mother of God".
The Orthodox Way, p. 76-77.

Brendan Byrne

And, to close, I would like to turn to a very insightful passage from a contemporary biblical scholar, Brendan Byrne, who reflects deeply on the implications of the genealogy of Christ that introduces the Gospel According to St. Matthew, and which we heard yesterday on the Sunday Before the Nativity. 

That genealogy is decidedly not a list of saintly figures from the Old Testament, but at times something of a "motley crew" of some real great sinners, mixed in with some righteous figures. The point that Brendan Byrne makes is that this mixture of the "good" and the "bad" may also describe our own personal genealogy! But that does not mean that God can not providentially work us through this on a personal level:

The One believers own as Son of God and Savior did not just drop out of the sky, so to speak, without a mixed history - good and bad - that lies behind every human life. There are skeletons in his family closet just as there are in ours. Nor was this line "pure" in an ethnic sense or exempt from sexual scandal and exploitation. But it is through just such a human history that the thread of salvation runs. The invitation is there to trace in our own "ancestry," whether it be our family story or our individual life story, a similar working of grace and redemption, all to be woven into the wider pattern of salvation brought by Jesus.

Lifting the Burden, p. 22.

Closing Thoughts

Just a "taste" of the profound mystery surrounding the Nativity of Christ. In addition to reading this series of wonderful passages, it still remains that the actual worship of Christ through our liturgical tradition offers us the very experience of being united to Christ.

We will celebrate the great Feast of the Nativity in the following manner:

Festal Matins this evening at 7:00 p.m.
Divine Liturgy Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m.

In our hyper-hectic world, I hope that everyone has something of a vigilant day in which being a Christian is somehow manifested.

Friday, December 21, 2018

'Mankind was my business!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The over-all theme of the Parable of the Great Supper, heard last Sunday at the Liturgy, had to do with how being "busy" can easily lead to excuse-making of a dubious kind because we then justify postponing our relationship with God based upon those very excuses. But as Christ said in the parable, the Master of the Supper was not impressed. 
"Business! Mankind was my business!"

This somehow connects in my mind with a certain literary classic. Over the years I have read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (and seen more than one film version!). For me, one of the most effective passages in the book, is toward the beginning, when the Ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve. By this time, the miserly and miserable character of Scrooge has been masterfully etched in by Dickens. And to this day, the name of Scrooge is synonymous with avarice, greed, and a joyless and meaningless accumulation of profit. Earlier, Scrooge had articulated some of the utilitarian philosophy of the 19th c. when he coldly said in reference to the poor and prisoners, "If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

The Ghost of Marley returns to haunt Scrooge, but Marley himself is in great torment and anguish. Imprisoned in chains that he cannot free himself of, Marley is doomed to roam the earth as a restless spirit witnessing human suffering that he cannot alleviate because he ignored that suffering selfishly during his time on earth. Of the chains, Marley says:

"I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

With a deep, bitter regret, Marley then confesses:

"My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house - mark me! - in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!... Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one's life opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

At this point in this somewhat macabre dialogue between the two, Scrooge begins to grope for some signs of hope and relief as he intuitively realizes that Marley is speaking words of warning to him for his cold-hearted scorn for the rest of humanity. When Scrooge protests the working of an unseen providence, by saying "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," we then hear what may be the most significant - and well-known - passage in this scene:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

It held up its chains at arm's length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"

Anticipating the regret of a life not well-lived is a frightening thought. Especially if it comes down to having been too busy!

Good literature is capable of leaving strong indelible images that are much more effective than a well-argued treatise. Dickens' characters were always exaggerated or "larger than life," as we may say. But they then "typify" a great deal about life in the process. 

Besides the necessary business that makes up our lives, and which must be done carefully and responsibly, just what else are we so "busy" with? Does that business also lead us away from charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence? Are we presently scurrying around, making sure that we will have a "Merry Christmas," while also turning our eyes downward so that we too cannot "see" the blessed Star that guides us to the Incarnate Christ? Are we going to somehow be able to "fit" the Church into our "Business?" Both the parable from Sunday and Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol raise the issue of our stewardship of time and the Christian truth that "mankind is our business."

Monday, December 10, 2018

St. Romanos the Melode and the Kontakion

Dear Parish Faithful,

According to the patristic scholar, Fr. Andrew Louth: "St. Romanos (6th. c) is perhaps the most famous liturgical poet of the Orthodox Church, but his genius is such as to command a place among the highest ranks of poets, religious or secular, so that he has been called by Professor Trepanis 'the greatest poet of the Greek middle ages'." 

I begin with this as a brief introduction to a small portion of one of his famous kontakia (singular,  kontakion) that I would like to share this morning in preparation for the Feast of the Nativity.

What we hear today in the Church under this title is a mere echo of the original structure of a kontakion. Again, citing Fr. Louth:

"The verse form that Romanos raised to the highest perfection was the kontakion, a kind of chanted verse sermon, consisting of brief stanzas (each called an ikos), all of which end with the same refrain." 

In other words the kontakion was something of a long and elaborate theological poem that was most likely chanted after the Gospel "with the choir (and doubtless the congregation) joining in the refrain."

The most famous of the many kontakia composed by St. Romanos, was the one now known as the Nativity Kontakion that we will hear when the feast is celebrated.

A pious tradition relates that the Mother of God appeared to him in a dream and gave him a scroll to swallow (see Ezekiel 2:8-3:3; Revelation 9:10-11). This was on Christmas Eve, and when he awoke he went to the church and chanted his famous kontakion in honor of the Feast. What we sing in church to this day for the Feast of the Nativity is merely the Prelude that introduces a poetically structured hymn of 24 stanzas! Yet, brief as it may be, this is truly one of the greatest "Christmas hymns" ever to be composed for its theological depth:

Today the Virgin gives birth the Transcendent One,
and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One!
Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him!
The wise men journey with the star!
Since for our sake the eternal God was born
  as a little Child!

It is also most likely that St. Romanos composed the incomparable Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos, perhaps his greatest masterpiece, and a hymn chanted to this day in the church and in personal devotion.

One of the chief characteristics of his kontakia is the endlessly creative use of typology as a way of reading the Scriptures.

Typology allows us to uncover, through persons, places, and even sacred objects, their role as prefigurations for their fulfillment in Christ.  (In Rom. 5:14 St. Paul tells us that Adam was a "type" [Gk. typos] of Christ). Through typological exegesis (biblical interpretation) the Burning Bush of Exodus 3, is a "type" of the Theotokos, who will hold within her womb the fiery Word of God, but not be consumed in the process. This is one of St. Romanos' favorite types from the Old Testament.

Therefore, just to pass on a "taste" of the rich poetic theology expressed by St. Romanos in his kontakia, I am offering the Prelude and stanzas 1 & 13 of his kontakion on the Mother of God. We do not associate poetry and rich imagery with theology, but this is how some of the early Church Fathers expressed their deepest intuitions into the mystery of Christ. This is especially true of the Syriac tradition. (St. Romanos was from Syria and journeyed eventually to make his home in Constantinople).

Notice the refrain after each stanza. That must have made a strong impression on all of the worshipers present, when the choir or the entire congregation sang/chanted that repeatedly throughout the course of the hymn


At your conceiving without seed, O Mother of God,
Joseph was struck with wonder as he contemplated what was
   beyond nature.
and he brought to mind the rain on the fleece (Judges 6:3),
the bush unburned by fire (Ex. 3:2-4),
Aaron's rod which blossomed (Num. 17:23),
And your betrothed and guardian bore witness and cried to the priests,

            "A Virgin gives birth, and after childbirth remains
            still a virgin."

Stanza 1

"What I see I cannot understand, for it surpasses the human mind,
how it it that the grass carries fire and it not burned?
A lamb carries a lion, a swallow an eagle and the servant her
   Master. (Isaiah 11:6-8)
In a mortal womb, in a manner uncircumscribed,
Mary carries my Savior as he wills,
so that everyone will say,

        "A virgin gives birth, and after childbirth remains
        still a virgin."

Stanza 13

"So, Mary, sing the praise of Christ, who is carried below in your bosom
and on high is seated  with the Father.
He sucks at your breast and gives mortals divine food from above,
and below he is laid in a cave.
Through love of mortals,

            A Virgin gives birth, and after  childbirth remains
            still a virgin."

For anyone interested in pursuing these hymns further for their rich theology and use of the Scriptures, perhaps the best collection is in the book, On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, compiled and edited by the late Archimandrite Ephraim, considered an excellent translator during his lifetime. I believe that there are eighteen kontakia in this collection.

Friday, November 30, 2018

'He is Life itself and, therefore, my life...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

We concluded this year's Fall Adult Education Class last Monday evening. It was one of our better classes, in my humble opinion, primarily based on Fr. Alexander Schmemann's For the Life of the World. The discussions were lively and helpful for everyone in the group.*

Of the group, we had many participants over the course of six weeks, and for the most part everyone was quite impressed by the range and depth of Fr. Schmemann's "vision" for Orthodoxy in the contemporary world. I have brought that vision to our parish for the course of almost thirty years now, and I hope it will continue well into the future. 

Fr. Alexander helped us understand the centrality of the Eucharist for each and every Orthodox community, and how that eucharistic experience is the foundation for our mission to the world. That ascension to the Kingdom on the Lord's Day is what sets us apart from being just one more "religious community." It is the very content of who and what we are.

One particular paragraph stood out for me from the final chapter, "Trampling Down Death By Death." I would like to share it with everyone in the parish:

To be Christian, to believe in Christ, means and has always meant this: to know in a trans-rational and yet absolutely certain way called faith, that Christ is the Life of all life, that He is Life itself and, therefore, my life. "In Him was life; and the life was the light of men."
All Christian doctrines - those of the incarnation, redemption, atonement - are explanations, consequences, but not the "cause" of that faith. Only when we believe in Christ do all these affirmations become "valid" and "consistent." 
But faith itself is the acceptance not of this or that "proposition" about Christ, but of Christ Himself as the Life and the light of life. "For the life was manifested and we have seeing, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us" (I Jn. 1:2). 
In this sense Christian faith is radically different from "religious belief." Its starting point is not "believe" but love. In itself and by itself all belief is partial, fragmentary, fragile. "For we know in part, and we prophecy in part ... be tongues, they shall cease, whether there is knowledge, it shall vanish away." Only love never fails (I Cor. 13). And if to love someone means that I have my life in him, or rather that he has become the "content" of my life, to love Christ is to know and to possess Him as the Life of my life. (p.104-105)

If you have yet to read For the Life of the World, put aside your other reading for the moment, and immerse yourselves in a "classic" of Orthodox writing that will open up all kinds of new insights into the meaning of the Christian faith and life.

* Links to order the book, plus Fr. Steven's extensive class notes and discussion questions, as well as special resources on Fr Alexander Schmemann and related texts may be found on our parish website.

Friday, November 23, 2018

A Brief Reflection on Black Friday

Dear Parish Faithful,

There is something almost "metaphysically unsettling" about "Black Friday."

The very name of this day has an ominous ring to it. It may just be the sheer "nakedness" of the open, unapologetic, unflinching - and idolatrous? - materialism that pervades the day. (Last year, a staggering five billion dollars were spent in less than twenty-four hours). 

Or, is it the sight of the steely determination of compulsive consumers camping out overnight before the store of their choice that offers that ever-enticing single word: Sale? 

Perhaps it is the frantic mayhem of the rush to the doors once they swing open like insatiable jaws leading into a modern-day Moloch awaiting to swallow its victims. 

Could it be the unneighborly pushing and shoving for a product on the shelves or a place in the check-out line? How about an uneasy sense of potential violence hovering in the atmosphere if competitive tempers and nerves begin to fray? 

Perhaps it is more the rapid devolution, in a veritable "twinkling of an eye," from a day of peaceful thanksgiving, into a day of rampant consumerism that is nothing short of unnerving in its effect. (Once upon a time, this Friday after Thanksgiving was a day of rest and relaxation.) As if it is now that Thanksgiving Thursday has become a mere prelude to the Black Friday to follow. 

Or is it, finally, the disheartening havoc wrecked upon any vestigial remainder of "Christmas" that has miraculously continued to linger within our secular culture two millennia after our Savior's nativity in the flesh? We seem to be witnessing a juggernaut that continues to pick up speed and strength as it careens into an unrestricted future with no end in sight. 

There is "Great and Holy Friday" and now there is ... "Black Friday."

Am I exaggerating? Please let me know. Of course, one can show the virtue of patience and simply wait until "Cyber Monday" in the quiet of one's own domicile. Not very certain that it will be spiritually healthier ... but it will be far less chaotic and perhaps even safer!

If only we loved God with the type of fervor displayed by our neighbors and co-citizens on Black Friday and rushed to the Church with such energy for the peaceful and prayerful services of this sacred Season!

What a witness to a spiritually-starving world we could make! But, alas, just when will that happen? Then again, with God all things are possible!

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Abundance of Our Possessions

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possession."  (LK. 12:15)

Icon of the Parable of the Rich Fool: He dines like a king at the table in the center, while servants build his new barns on the left. At right, an angel is seen coming to his deathbed to receive his soul.

There is hardly a Christian who would disagree with this teaching of the Lord, as expressed in the words above, when it comes to our relationship with the "abundance of our possessions."  We know that our life does not "consist" in them.  In other words, these very possessions do not, and simply cannot, impart genuine meaning and significance to our lives. These possessions are external to our inner being; for they cannot define us as human beings made "in the image and likeness of God." And we can say that without dismissing these possessions as just so much "mammon."

There are things that we need and there are things that we enjoy.  Yet, I also cannot but arrive at the inescapable conclusion that even though we know this teaching to be true, we seem to pay such teaching just so much "lip service" because of the extent to which we are enamored and captivated (enslaved?) by "the abundance of our possessions!"  Who is the person that can claim otherwise? 

On one level - certainly not the highest! - our lives seem to be a steady progression of accumulating as much as possible, the only limit to this accumulation being imposed on us by the extent of our available resources.  This means that the abundance - or at least the quality - of our possessions will increase as our access to "purchasing power" increases.  (Thus, at Christmas, the extent and quality of the gifts that end up in the hands of children will depend upon the wealth - or lack of wealth - of their parents.  Those who have will simply have more once Christmas comes and goes).

As Christians, then, we find ourselves in the awkward position, indicative of a genuine tension, of accepting our Lord's teaching about the dangers of accumulating possessions as true, and yet unable to arrest the desire and endeavor of adding to this abundance.  The "consumer within" is a driving force indeed!

The Lord reveals the obviousness of His teaching about possessions through the Parable of the Rich Fool, found immediately after the words already cited above. (LK. 12:16-21)  This parable is relatively short and to-the-point, so I will include it here in order to refresh our familiarity with it:

The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?  And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; that there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample good laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'  But God said to him, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'  So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."

Not only short and to-the-point, but almost brutal in its clarity and inescapable truthfulness:  You can plan all you want, but death will cut short the most well-conceived plans with an unexpected finality that makes a mockery of those very plans. When death comes, the rich man's wealth is shown to be a worthless form of security for his "soul." (This parable always brings to my mind the words of Tevye the dairyman, who once mused that the more man plans the harder God laughs!). 

The parable does not make a moral monster of the rich landowner. There is no hint of his being a particularly sinful person. Indeed, he is probably quite indicative of his "type:" at least outwardly decent and a man of status. And he may have attended his local synagogue with regularity.  It is his preoccupation with "the abundance of his possessions" - "what shall I do;" "I will do this" - that renders him a "fool" in the judgment of God; a preoccupation that was self-centered in its orientation, culminating in a blindness that resulted in forgetfulness of God, instead of pursuing the meaningful task of striving to be "rich toward God."  As a Jew guided by the Law, he had that opportunity but squandered it.

His careful plans to build larger barns in order to accommodate his ever-increasing store of crops had the immediate impact of making life easier and enjoyable - a time to "eat, drink, and be merry." This, in turn, was a self-satisfying expansion and investment of his time and energy. In the process he pushed the inevitability of his death into a vague and perhaps far-off future. (The saints teach us that the "remembrance of death" is a key component of our spiritual lives, precisely to protect us from any such foolish forgetfulness). It is an attitude/temptation as alive today as it was in the time of Christ.

As real as the barns the landowner envisioned may have been, they are equally symbolic of a choice he made with the direction of his life. And this choice toward wealth proved to be quite costly.  Is our present-day portfolio-building equivalent to the rich landowner's building of barns?  Are we more preoccupied with becoming "rich toward God," or simply with becoming rich in the accumulation of our possessions?  Will we have to suffer with being called a "fool" when that time comes?

Perhaps we can understand the rich landowner's pursuit of an abundance of possessions as an unconscious strategy toward finding and establishing a sense of security in life. 

We are all aware of the fragile nature of our lives, and the threats posed to our security on a host of fronts:  poverty, illness, death itself.  There is nothing quite so reassuring as the feeling of security that would protect us from such threats.  While to feel insecure is a cause of great anxiety. Civilization and technology are built and developed to provide security for human beings in an insecure world. 

Thus, we find ourselves facing the same dilemma as the landowner of the parable in our own search for security; and often turning to the very means that he did in order to build up that ever-shifting sense of security:  the accumulation of an "abundance of possessions."  How ironic, though, that we tend to "secure our security" with the very means that cannot really provide it, while we neglect trying to get "rich toward God, the only true security! 

As the biblical scholar Timothy Luke Johnson has written:

"It is out of deep fear that the acquisitive instinct grows monstrous.  Life seems so frail and contingent that many possessions are required to secure it, even though the possessions are frailer still than the life"  (Gospel of Luke, p. 201).  

And, as another biblical scholar - Brendan Byrne - writes with a certain bluntness: 

"Attachment to wealth is incompatible with living, sharing and celebrating the hospitality of God" (The Hospitality of God, p. 115).

The impact of the Parable of the Rich Fool is precisely in the choice with which the parable confronts us between two very different types of "security:"  the abundance of our possessions, or being rich toward God.  It seems like a simple choice - especially for Christians - but somehow it ends up being a good deal more complicated.  We need to search our minds and hearts as to why this is true.

Christ did not deliver parables in order to entertain us with pleasant stories.  Neither to simply edify us with a moral story that remains within our "comfort zone."  The choice that the parable does confront us with demands a response - though it is possible that if we do not have "ears to hear," we can walk away from the parable with indifference.  ("Let us attend!" always precedes the reading of the Holy Scriptures in church so as to focus our minds on the appointed readings).

Let us, however, assume that we do have "ears to hear." If, then, the parable shakes us out of the false sense of security that possessions may give us, we then have to reflect deeply on how to become "rich toward God." 

Of course, we must begin by cultivating the gifts of God graciously bestowed on us:  faith, hope and love.  We can direct our prayer towards this. We need to un-hypocritically practice prayer, almsgiving and fasting. 

We further immerse ourselves in the "words of the Word" - the holy Scriptures.  It is essential that we confess our sins, and then wage a "spiritual warfare" against them.  The possibilities within the grace-filled life of the Church are many indeed.  We are neither predestined nor forced to avail ourselves of these possibilities.  We must choose to do so, supported by the grace of God.  This choice may very well determine whether or not, at the end of our lives, we will hear either "Fool!" or "Well-done, good and faithful servant."  As Jesus often exclaimed: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"

*As a kind of footnote to the above, I would like to point to a tremendous story of great narrative power and psychological insight, that almost reads as an extended and artistic embodiment of this parable:  Leo Tolstoy's "Master and Man."  In the story the rich landowner of 1st c. Palestine is now re-conceived as a wealthy 19th c Russian landowner.  His ultimate fate is rather terrifying.  A great work of literature well worth the time and effort.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a meditation from a few years back - and one that is also in my new book in a slightly different form - that I do not overly hesitate to send yet again, because the issues presented here for us to think hard about ("meditate"), are certainly with us today and are far from being resolved: "There is nothing new under the sun." I hope everyone is prepared to make a real effort to embrace the forty-day Nativity Fast on a level that works for you and your family and that commits us to the life of the Church in a meaningful manner. If we are not prepared, perhaps what you read here will alert you to the Season we are now entering. 

~ Fr. Steven


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Today, November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, celebrated on December 25.  (The Western observance is from the four Advent Sundays before Christmas). For some/many of us this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared.  However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season today.  This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” that every Orthodox Christian is engaged in consciously or unconsciously.  The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively.  Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres. 

Because of that tension between the two, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously.  To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint, a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world.  That is what it means to be ascetical. And to be an ascetic is not to be a fanatic, but to follow the words of Christ who taught us to practice "self-denial" (MK. 8:34). It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing amount of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve that is not easy!  From our historical perspective of being alive in the twenty-first century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross.  Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be.   

Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our failing economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleashing the “consumer within” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When you add in the unending “entertainment” that is designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all get rather overwhelming.  Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives.  Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough;” or even better that “enough is a feast.”  An awareness – combined with sharing - of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”

Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies.  To speak honestly, this is a difficult  and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies?  I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity.  If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance.  Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty that a consumerist Christmas season awakens us to. The Church directs us to fast before we feast.  Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that is behind such an approach?  Can we develop some domestic strategies that will give us  the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent?  Do we care enough?

The final question always returns us to the question that Jesus asked of his initial disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?”  If we confess together with St. Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we know where we stand as the “battle of the calendars” intensifies for the next forty days. In such a way, these forty days will result in a meaningful journey toward the mystery of the Incarnation rather than in an exhaustive excursion toward a vapid winter holiday. The choice is ours to make.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Image of a True Disciple: The Gadarene Demoniac

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

One of the most challenging narratives in the Gospels has to be the healing of the Gadarene demoniac (Mk. 5:1-20; MATT. 8:28-34; LK. 8:26-39). This dramatic event which reveals the power of Christ over the demons will appear to the 21st c. mind as either archaic or even primitive. We may listen with respect and sing "Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee!" upon the completion of the reading, but "wrapping our minds" around such a narrative may leave us baffled if not shaking our heads.
The spectacle of a man possessed by many demons, homeless and naked, living among the tombs, chained so as to contain his self-destructive behavior is, to state the obvious, not exactly a sight that we encounter with any regularity. (Although we should acknowledge that behind the walls of certain institutions, we could witness to this day some horrible scenes of irrational and frightening behavior from profoundly troubled and suffering human beings). Add to this a herd of swine blindly rushing over a steep bank and into a lake to be drowned, and we must further recognize the strangeness of this event. This is all-together not a part of our world!

Yet, there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the narrated event, which does appear in three of the Gospels, though with different emphases and details - in fact there are two demoniacs in St. Matthew's telling of the story! It is always instructive to compare the written account of a particular event or body of teaching when found in more than one Gospel. This will cure us of the illusion of a wooden literalism as we will discover how the four evangelists will present their gathered material from the ministry of Jesus in somewhat different forms. 

As to the Gadarene demoniac, here was an event within the ministry of Christ that must have left a very strong impression upon the early Church as it was shaping its oral traditions into written traditions that would eventually come together in the canonical Gospels. This event was a powerful confirmation of the Lord's encounter and conflict with, and victory over, the "evil one." The final and ultimate consequence of that victory will be revealed in the Cross and Resurrection.

Whatever our immediate reaction to this passage - proclaimed yesterday during the Liturgy from the Gospel According to St. Luke (8:26-39) - I believe that we can recognize behind the dramatic details the disintegration of a human personality under the influence of the evil one, and the reintegration of the same man's personhood when healed by Christ. Here was a man that was losing his identity to a process that was undermining the integrity of his humanity and leading to physical harm and psychic fragmentation. 
I am not in the process of offering a psychological analysis of the Gadarene demoniac because, 1) I am ill-equipped to do so; and 2) I do not believe that we can "reduce" his horrible condition to psychological analysis. We are dealing with the mysterious presence of personified evil and the horrific effects of that demonic presence which we accept as an essential element of the authentic Gospel Tradition. 

The final detail that indicates this possessed man's loss of personhood is revealed in the dialogue between himself and Jesus:

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. (8:30)

To be named in the Bible is to receive a definite and irreducible identity as a person. It is to be "someone" created in the "image and likeness of God." It is the role of the evil one to be a force of disintegration. The "legion" inhabiting the man reveals the loss of his uniqueness, and the fragmentation of his personality. Such a distorted personality can no longer have a "home," which is indicative of our relational capacity as human beings, as it is indicative of stability and a "groundedness" in everyday reality. The poor man is driven into the desert, biblically the abode of demons. 

Once again, we may stress the dramatic quality of this presentation of a person driven to such a state, but would we argue against this very presentation as false when we think of the level of distortion that accompanies any form of an "alliance" with evil -whether "voluntary or involuntary?" Does anyone remain whole and well-balanced under the influence of evil? Or do we rather not experience or witness a drift toward the "abyss"?

Then we hear a splendid description of the man when he is healed by Christ! For we hear the following once the demons left him and entered into the herd of swine and self-destructed (the ultimate end of all personal manifestations of evil?):

Then the people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. (8:35)

"Sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind." This is clearly one of the most beautiful descriptions of a Christian who remains as a true disciple of the Master. This is the baptized person who is clothed in a "garment of salvation" and who is reoriented toward Christ, the "Sun of Righteousness." 

The image here is of total reintegration, of the establishment of a relationship with Christ that restores integrity and wholeness to human life. Also an image of peacefulness and contentment. Our goal in life is to "get our mind right" which describes repentance or that "change of mind" that heals all internal divisions of the mind and heart as it restores our relationship with others. 

Jesus commands the man "to return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you" (8:39). We, too, have been freed from the evil one "and all his angels and all his pride" in baptism. In our own way, perhaps we too can also proclaim just how much Jesus has done for us (cf. 8:39).